At the end of this sermon, there will be a test.
If you felt a pang of fear just now, you’re not alone. There’s little more that can strike fear in the hearts of people everywhere than the announcement of an impending test.
Most of us are no longer in school, but I’m sure we can remember back to the days of having exams and all the studying it required.
Study: that thing we did in school that most of us would like to forget. That word brings up images of late night cramming sessions, fears as we took our seats for a test, piles of books that intimidated us, and the jitters that come from too much coffee. That’s part of a life left behind since we last graduated from a program; be it high school, college, law school, or, in my case, graduate school.
That thing that we’d rather forget about. But Jude won’t let us. Let’s hear this morning’s scripture, from the Common English Bible translation:
1 Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ and brother of James.
To those who are called, loved by God the Father and kept safe by Jesus Christ.
2 May you have more and more mercy, peace, and love.
3 Dear friends, I wanted very much to write to you concerning the salvation we share. Instead, I must write to urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God’s holy people. 4 Godless people have slipped in among you. They turn the grace of our God into unrestrained immorality and deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Judgment was passed against them a long time ago.
5 I want to remind you of something you already know very well. The Lord, who once saved a people out of Egypt, later destroyed those who didn’t maintain their faith. 6 I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day. 7 In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.
8 Yet, even knowing this, these dreamers in the same way pollute themselves, reject authority, and slander the angels. 9 The archangel Michael, when he argued with the devil about Moses’ body, did not dare charge him with slander. Instead, he said, “The Lord rebuke you!” 10 But these people slander whatever they don’t understand. They are destroyed by what they know instinctively, as though they were irrational animals.
11 They are damned, for they follow in the footsteps of Cain. For profit they give themselves over to Balaam’s error. They are destroyed in the uprising of Korah. 12 These people are like jagged rocks just below the surface of the water waiting to snag you when they join your love feasts. They feast with you without reverence. They care only for themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; fruitless autumn trees, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom the darkness of the underworld is reserved forever.
14 Enoch, who lived seven generations after Adam, prophesied about these people when he said, “See, the Lord comes with his countless holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on everyone and to convict everyone about every ungodly deed they have committed in their ungodliness as well as all the harsh things that sinful ungodly people have said against him.” 16 These are faultfinding grumblers, living according to their own desires. They speak arrogant words and they show partiality to people when they want a favor in return.
17 But you, dear friends, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the end time scoffers will come living according to their own ungodly desires.” 19 These people create divisions. Since they don’t have the Spirit, they are worldly.
20 But you, dear friends: build each other up on the foundation of your most holy faith, pray in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep each other in the love of God, wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life. 22 Have mercy on those who doubt. 23 Save some by snatching them from the fire. Fearing God, have mercy on some, hating even the clothing contaminated by their sinful urges.
24 To the one who is able to protect you from falling,
and to present you blameless and rejoicing before his glorious presence,
25 to the only God our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,
belong glory, majesty, power, and authority,
before all time, now and forever. Amen.
There are godless people! The NRSV refers to them as “intruders.” They have slipped in among the people to whom Jude writes. We know nothing about this people except that they are a church of Jewish origin. All we really know is that there are people among a church in the ancient world, in the first days of Christianity, who are perverting grace. That’s another phrase from the NRSV, what the CEB calls grace turned into “unrestrained immorality.”
Unrestrained immorality. What does that look like? Jude has the answer through a series of Jewish stories; some biblical, others from other ancient Jewish sources; but all things that would have resonated with his audience. He demonstrates a very deep, learned, understanding of the Jewish tradition.
In citing all these things, he demonstrates that these godless people “pollute themselves, reject authority, and slander the angels.” (8) They “slander whatever they don’t understand” and are “destroyed by what they know instinctively, as though they were irrational animals.”
Ultimately, Jude notes, they care only for themselves, having too good of a time at the love feasts referred to in verse 12. These godless people do whatever feels good, whatever feels right, whatever seems righteous in their own minds.
And they justify doing so by saying that God has given them grace, so if what they do turns out to be sinful, grace covers them. Thus, they can follow their instincts, like “irrational animals,” doing whatever feels good because grace covers them. Jude thinks that’s a perversion of God’s grace; taking advantage of a magnificent gift.
The fancy word for this is antinomianism, which means “without morals.” For the antinomians, morality is irrelevant because we should embrace the world through doing whatever feels good. Thus, we should follow our instincts, we should stay attuned to what feels good and right, and we can then go off and do that thing. If we happen to sin in the process, oh well; grace covers that sin.
And this ancient heresy, unlike Marcisonism or Gnosticism, persists into our present day.
As I considered antinomianism, my mind went first to a favorite James Taylor song of mine, “Shower the People.” He says: “You can play the game and you can act out the part, though you know it wasn’t written for you. Tell me how can you stand there with your broken heart ashamed of playing the fool. One thing can lead to another; it doesn’t take any sacrifice. Father and mother, sister and brother, if it feels nice, don’t think twice.”
Taylor’s solution to living an inauthentic life is to listen to instinct: “if it feels nice, don’t think twice.”
And that instinct to do what feels right and what feels good extends into areas that might surprise us.
In a recent podcast, Shankar Vedantam who does the show “Hidden Brain” for NPR, noted that most people, when asked to explain why they believe what they believe, say they do so because “it feels good” or “it feels right.” For ninety percent of people, the basis for belief isn’t grounded in objective fact, but rather in subjective feeling.
Consider how we judge leadership. We ask each other how we feel about someone, whether that’s a local official, a business leader, or a politician. We don’t hold up a list of traits we expect of our leaders and then grade them against that list. We report how that person makes us feel: confident, scared, excited, dreadful, and the like.
I heard another report recently that talked about how cars are sold. They are advertised and designed to evoke feelings, rather than thoughts, because we buy cars based on how they make us feel. Consider how differently a Honda Civic is advertised from a Ford F-150. In my truck, I feel tall, powerful, in control. In my convertible, I feel young, exuberant, joyful. In my minivan, I feel like a dad, more and more aware of my dad-bod. But, we bought that car because Dana loves it: she feels good driving it. Typically, we buy a car for how it makes us feel, rather than its utility.
Throughout our society, as Shankar Vedantam pointed out, feeling more than fact governs our interactions. That even includes religious belief. That same ninety percent report that whatever they believe spiritually, it’s because of how that spirit (or lack thereof) makes them feel rather than some objective commitment.
It’s clear we tend to do what feels right, even if that leads into immorality. In fact, this is so pervasive in our culture that for many populations, the fact that it feels right makes it moral. Personal opinion is gradually becoming fact.
And this is exactly what Jude points out as wrong in his letter. But he doesn’t tell them out of his personal opinion why they are wrong. No, he cites that litany of sources from Jewish scriptures and legends. Consider just how many of them there are.
The godless are like those God destroyed in Egypt, those left behind after the Exodus; a reference to the book of Exodus.
They are like angels who deserted God and have been kept in hell since; a reference to the legend of angels following Lucifer from heaven into hell.
They practice fornication like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, a reference to the destruction of those cities in Genesis.
They slander angels, unlike the archangel Michael, who could have done so to the devil as they argued over Moses’s body. That’s a famous Jewish legend of the time, not found in scripture.
They are envious like Cain, who famously killed Abel in Genesis.
They are greedy, like Balaam who was accosted by a talking donkey. This refers to a story from the book of Numbers that reads like Shrek and Donkey of movie fame.
They are arrogant and defy authority, like Korah from the book of Numbers.
They are the people Enoch prophesied about in the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch; a book that Jude then goes on to quote in verses 14b through 15.
In sum, he uses fact-based, evidence-driven, researched reasoning to prove that the antinomians, those who believe that morality doesn’t exist except in what feels right, are actually wrong. Not only wrong, but they are perverting God’s gift of grace.
Jude uses facts. And he knows facts because he has clearly, and thoroughly, studied the Jewish tradition. He knows his facts, he understands his faith tradition, and so he can defend it. And the reason he knows all this and can make such an argument is because he has spent time studying.
And this is exactly what’s wrong with the people to whom he writes. They have not been studying. They don’t know the tradition well enough to defend against antinomianism. And, as you can imagine, an amoral lifestyle looks pretty appealing so, lacking a defense against it, people are converting to antinomian Christianity.
Let’s be clear: this antinomian Christianity claims the name Christian. They have theological justification for their beliefs: God gave grace so if they happen to sin, they’re covered. If you don’t know the scriptures, if you don’t know the basis of the tradition, you can’t defend against that reasoning, and so it becomes very tempting to believe that the antinomians are, in fact, correct.
For look at what a good time they’re having at the love feasts! Look at how much fun they’re having sleeping around. Look at how much fun they’re having doing whatever feels good.
How can you defend against that heresy; indeed, how can you even know that it is heresy, if you haven’t studied the scriptures? How can you argue against it if you haven’t studied Christian tradition?
You can’t. That’s what makes study essential to our lives as Christians. We must make regular, disciplined, practice to study: learning about the Bible here at church and at home, studying the Christian tradition at church and at home, reading books about our faith and asking people who know more than us questions about our faith. We must never cease learning. We must always be studying.
That’s the example Jude sets for us this morning. That’s the call Jude issues to our lives: never cease learning; in a word, study.
We must study, first, because we all need to guard against heresies and false teachings. Study teaches us what we believe and why we believe it. You might think that the prosperity gospel is wrong. I certainly do. Joel Osteen does not represent true Christianity in my mind. But why? Can you say why God won’t reward you with a new car if you put money in the offering plate?
Paul says in Ephesians that “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (4:14) The primary way to achieve grounding in our faith, no longer tossed to and fro, understanding what we believe, why we believe it, and able to defend it, is through study.
Second, we must study because we need to be prepared to explain what we believe and why without basing it in personal opinion or feeling. Faith is feeling, but faith is also commitment; intellectual assent, a giving of ourselves over to what we cannot see but we yet believe to be true. How do you explain that? Beyond feeling? Beyond opinion? Can you do that this morning?
1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (NIV) Study prepares us to be able to do just that.
And third, if we want to be changed, honestly want to be changed into a more moral, more Christ-like person, we must take time to search the scriptures, to read books about our faith, to discover more and more of who we are in Christ. We must study.
But this requires serious self-reflection. This requires being honest with ourselves this morning. Many of us do not have a regular habit of study. Many of us would rather not. Many of us do not have a regular time set aside for spiritual disciplines. We think church is enough. The spiritual discipline guru Richard Foster notes that people who are regular in church attendance and even energetic in worship can come week after week and not find themselves changed at all (“Celebration of Discipline,” 62). That’s because they do not study.
Do you want to be changed this morning? Do you need transformation in your life? All of us should be answering yes to these questions because we all have work to do to be better than we are. We can all become better life-givers to others. We can all stand to learn more about ourselves. We all have destructive habits that need transformation.
Hear the words of Paul to the church in Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The key there is transformation: be transformed by the renewing of your minds. In other words, study.
That way you can know what you believe and why you believe it. That way you can defend against immoral behaviors that claim the name Christian. That way, you can discern what is truly right from wrong.
It’s no wonder that those famous words, Romans 12:1-2, are engraved over the entrance to Duke Divinity School.
Can you defend what you believe?
Can you explain, without referencing feeling, why you believe it?
Are you regularly transformed by the renewing of your mind?
Being able to answer yes to these questions comes from regular study: routine, disciplined, time with God. Do you have that?
In September, I’m going to be offering a class that will study Sabbath practice. Through it, I seek to offer transformation for those who feel life is too busy. It will teach how to see time as sacred and holy and how to manage time as God has intended. For when we do so, we discover life gets abundantly better. I hope you’ll consider joining, making that a part of beginning study on your own.
But, if you’re feeling convicted about your spiritual habits this morning, I offer the Adult Confirmation Class up to you again. It is the best way I have to help you establish a regular, meaningful, habit of spiritual practice, including study. By this Thursday, August 1, tell me or the church office if you would like to participate. I will only offer it if there is enough demand. Commit today, tell me right after this service, that you want to go deeper with God and be more committed. Let me help you learn how to do so.
Study is defense. Study is transformation. Study is essential. Do you take time to study?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.